Saskatchewan

Epidemiologist, teachers union left with questions as Regina schools return to in-person classes

Catholic and public schools in Regina will be returning to in-person classes on May 3.

'We are really in a no better place than we were at the height of that surge': Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine

Martin Collegiate in Regina, Sask., on April 19, 2021. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

The decision for Regina-area schools to return to in-person classes next week has left at least one epidemiologist surprised.

The majority of Catholic and public schools in Regina will be returning to the in-person classes on May 3, the school divisions announced late on Monday

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said Tuesday that his assessment of the case numbers in Regina didn't convince him it is safe to return to class Monday. 

"I really don't see the case numbers and the rate per capita in Regina really taking a downward dip," he said.

Muhajarine acknowledged that collateral consequences of remote interaction — such as isolation and mental health issues — are factors, but said the decision to go back to in-person learning is concerning when you look at the broader Canadian context. 

Nazeem Muhajarine is a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. (University of Saskatchewan/HO)

COVID-19 variants have led to more younger people being hospitalized and placed in the ICU, and others dying.  

"All of that tells me that it is not really a prudent thing to do," said Muhajarine. 

Patrick Maze, the president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, shares that opinion.

He said union members have been trying to figure out if they can refuse to work due to what they see as unsafe conditions. 

"Never before in my career has that come up on this level, where en masse, lots of lots of employees are asking about that," Maze said Tuesday. 

Many teachers and parents may still be giving a lot of thought about the return to in-person learning in Regina next week. We check in with one parent on why it’s the right time to move back to the classroom and why - for another parent - it’s the wrong move. A highschool student weighs in on how she feels about going back to class. 12:14

Regina Public Schools (RPS) said pre-K to Grade 8 are returning to regular class on May 3. Students in grades 9 to 12 will be alternate days in person. 

Regina Catholic Schools (RCS) said elementary students and the majority of high schools will return to class with face-to-face education, with masks.

Both organizations said the decision to return to in-person classes came after extensive consultation and the endorsement of public heath officials.

Neither school board said they had a specific metric guiding their decision, but RPS said it had information that "indicate[s] a distinct reduction in [cases among] school aged students." 

"[We] continue to have conversations regularly with the [medical health officers] in Regina. We are education experts relying on the expertise of medical experts to make these decisions," said Twylla West, a spokesperson for RCS.

Numbers have worsened

It's hard to determine whether there has been a distinct reduction among school-aged students.

The province only publicly provides a provincewide age breakdown for cases, with no region-specific age information. 

Overall metrics available for the Regina area say it is actually in a worse state than March 19, when both school districts announced they would begin remote learning. On that day, there were 583 known active cases in the Regina area. When the districts announced there were reopening, there were 884. 

Hospitalizations in the Regina area have increased to 58 from 37 in that time, while the number of people in the ICU more than doubled to 27 from 13. 

Even the positivity rate climbed, to 10.88 per cent from 8.7. 

"In terms of the new cases... per capita, we are really in a no better place than we were at the height of that surge in in Regina," Muhajarine said. 

He said that's why he doesn't think it make sense to go back to in-person classes. At the very least, he said, it means school divisions need to explain what has changed and why it is now safe. 

Difficult conversations are happening around the province, do we keep kids in schools when case numbers are high and COVID-19 variants are on the rise or do we move to remote learning which does not work well for families who can't work from home or who face additional challenges in being able to support online learning. Today we heard from parents in Saskatoon who are sending their kids to school and others who have chosen to keep their kids home. We heard from Patrick Maze with the STF about his concerns over staff and student safety, we heard from the director of the Saskatoon Public School division about how they makes decisions about in-person vs remote learning and we spoke to the Principal of Seven Stones School in Regina about how their teachers are trying to support students and their families when some families are facing many additional challenges right now. 47:19

Muhajarine said he isn't aware of a distinct reduction in cases among school aged children, but made it clear that he's not privy to that data. He said it's important that decisions are based on evidence. 

"A date doesn't mean anything in relation to a surge, in a surge of numbers," he said. "What we do has to depend on the numbers of of cases in a community rather than a date on the calendar."

Embracing rapid testing a good thing

RPS confirmed it had been provided with some information on rapid testing kits late on Monday, but said it had yet to review that information.  

"Once we do, we will be in a better position to comment on how the kits may be deployed in schools," said Terry Lazarou, a RPS spokesperson.  

Muhajarine said rapid testing is a good idea, but noted educators have been calling for it for months. 

"We cannot keep talking about doing rapid testing. We have to do that."

Open to changing course

Lazarou said the public school division has made decisions over the past two years based on the best information from health partners and direction from the province.

He said any future decision on in-class education will continue to be based on that advice.

RCS had a similar tone, with West saying the division is "absolutely committed" to adjust decisions as the situation with COVID-19 changes. 

With files from CBC's Sam Maciag

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